Behaviour and consequences
A consequence is something that happens as a result of your child behaving in a particular way. Consequences can be positive or negative.
Negative consequences make behaviour less likely to happen again. There are times when you might choose to use negative consequences for difficult behaviour – for example, to reinforce rules when simple reminders haven’t worked.
You can use both positive and negative consequences to guide your child’s behaviour. For example:
- You praise your child for sitting and eating their meal at the table. This is a positive consequence that makes this behaviour more likely in the future.
- Your child throws a toy, and you put the toy away for the rest of the day. This is a negative consequence that makes this behaviour less likely in the future.
Sometimes negative consequences accidentally reward children. For example, if your child fights with another child over a toy, and you give your child a more interesting toy to play with, this might actually encourage the behaviour. It’s best to avoid this situation if you can.
It’s always best to focus more on giving your child positive attention for behaving in ways that you like. This usually means you’ll need to use negative consequences less.
Sometimes it’s best to let children experience the natural consequences of their own behaviour. This helps them learn that their actions have consequences. They might learn to take responsibility for what they do.
Here are some examples of natural consequences:
- If your child refuses to put on a coat, your child feels cold.
- If your child won’t eat, your child feels hungry.
- If your child doesn’t complete their homework, your child fails the assignment.
- If your child breaks a rule on the sporting field, your child gets sent off.
Although natural consequences can be a useful behaviour management tool, they aren’t always appropriate. For example, dangerous or antisocial behaviour could lead to your child or someone else getting hurt. Likewise, regularly not doing schoolwork isn’t good for your child’s learning. In these situations, you can’t just ignore your child’s behaviour. You need to step in to guide your child, which might involve using appropriate consequences.
You might feel bad for your child when they experience negative natural consequences, but it’s best not to say ‘I told you so’. It’s best if your child learns from the experience, and saying things like this probably won’t help with that. If your child is open to talking, it might be better to say something like, ‘What do you think you could do differently next time?’
A related consequence is when you impose a consequence that’s related to the behaviour you want to discourage. For example:
- If your child is being silly and spills their drink, they must wipe it up.
- If your child leaves their bike in the driveway, the bike gets put away for an hour.
- If children are fighting over a toy, the toy is put away for 10 minutes.
The advantage of related consequences is they get your child to think about the issue, they feel fairer, and they tend to work better than consequences that aren’t related. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.
Other types of consequences: loss of privilege and quiet time or time-out
Other types of consequences include loss of privilege, and quiet time or time-out. These consequences aren’t necessarily related to the difficult behaviour. But if you use them well, they give your child the opportunity to stop, think about their behaviour, and learn from its consequences.
Quiet time and time-out are when you take your child away from activities and other people for a short period of time. You can use quiet time and time-out when your child needs to take a break from other people or activities to calm down. These strategies work well for children aged 3-6 years.
Loss of privilege is taking away a favourite object or activity for a while because of unacceptable behaviour. It can help children aged six years and over learn that their behaviour has consequences. For example, your child swears and you turn off the games console for a while. Or a child who isn’t cooperating might lose the privilege of a lift to soccer training.
A clear set of family rules can help guide your child’s behaviour in positive ways. Family rules help everyone in your family understand what to do, not just what not to do.
How to put consequences into action
Here are three simple steps for when you need to put consequences into action:
- Stay calm. If you’re calm, your child is more likely to stay calm too, which makes it easier for them to think about their behaviour. If you get angry, your child might be distracted by how cross you are.
- When the behaviour happens, give your child a chance to change their behaviour. For example, ‘Frankie, if you take Jay’s turn again, you’ll miss your turn in the next round’. The exception is when a child breaks an important family rule. For example, ‘We touch each other gently in this family. Hitting means you go straight to time-out’.
- Follow through with the consequence. For example, ‘Frankie, I warned you about taking turns. You can sit out of this round’. If your child thinks they might be able to get out of a consequence, this strategy become much less powerful.
It’s OK if your child doesn’t change their behaviour straight away. You might need to use consequences a few times before your child learns to behave differently.
Making consequences work for you: tips
One of the most important things about consequences is to use them as a response to your child’s behaviour, not to your child themselves. For example, let your child know the consequence is for hitting or breaking a family rule, not for being a disobedient child. This way your child will feel loved and safe – even when you’re using consequences.
Here are more tips for getting the most out of consequences.
Reserve consequences for children over three years
Children younger than three don’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences just feel unfair to them.
Use consequences fairly, according to children’s needs and abilities
You might have difference consequences depending on your children’s ages, but if you’ve decided your children are old enough for negative consequences, it’s important to use them the same way for everyone. Even young children will be upset if they see other children being treated differently from them.
Use consequences consistently
If you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect. For example, you might always use a time-out for hitting.
Explain consequences ahead of time
If your child knows what to expect and why, they’re more likely to accept the consequences and less likely to feel angry about it. For example, ‘When you don’t share your toys, the toys get put away’.
Keep consequences short
Keeping it short means your child doesn’t have to wait long before showing you that they can behave well. For example, if you turn off the TV for 10 minutes because children are fighting over the remote control, they quickly get another opportunity to solve the problem in a different way.
Also, a long consequence can end up being worse for you than for your child. For example, a child deprived of their bike for a week is likely to get bored and cranky!
Give the consequence soon after the behaviour
When you do need to use a consequence and you’ve warned your child, it’s best if the consequence happens as soon as possible after the behaviour.
But it’s best not to give a consequence immediately if you’re feeling very angry because you might overreact or be too harsh. Instead, say something like ‘I’m feeling very angry at the moment. We’ll talk about this again in a couple of minutes when I’m feeling calmer’.
In families where parents use negative consequences like yelling, threatening or smacking, children often keep behaving in challenging ways. That’s because these types of consequences don’t help children learn about better behaviour. And this kind of punishment can have long-term negative effects on development.